Sheer fun in animation, it seems, died with Howard Ashman, the immensely gifted lyricist whose clever wordplay and anything-for-a-laugh rhyming made "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and parts of "Aladdin" so enjoyable.
Since his death in 1991, animated features have become big business, but their spontaneity and sense of surprise have given way to manufactured awe. Films have been transformed from light Broadway musicals to full-blown heavier fare like "Lion King," "Pocahontas" and "Anastasia," with their new agey lessons and Sturm und Drang plagued characters. Recent attempts at straight-ahead humor such as "Hercules" have been hampered by the fact that they just weren't that funny.
Warner Bros. inaugurates its new feature animation division with "Quest for Camelot," a project that unfortunately seems a nearly perfect reflection of troubling trends in animated features. It's clearly concocted to recall and distill elements of recent animated successes--so much so, alas, that it lacks a distinct personality of its own.
Arthurian legend is kind of shunted to the side of the story here. Instead, the story concerns a standard-issue spunky female heroine named Kayley. Her father, one of the knights of the Round Table, was killed by the menacing Ruber, an imposing guy whose eye twitches whenever he's considering something really evil.
Kayley, aided by a young blind man named Garrett and a two-headed dragon named Devon and Cornwall who provide the requisite comic relief, must battle Ruber's monsters to make Camelot safe again. Garrett's blindness is the one adventurous element to the film, but even it seems calculated; his lack of sight is hardly debilitating, yet still provides kids a lesson in acceptance.
It seems obvious that the film was demographically structured so that the monsters would make really cool action figures for boys, while girls play with Kayley dolls and younger kids cuddle with plush Devons and Cornwalls.
A number of name performers are recruited for vocal contributions here, including Pierce Brosnan, Gary Oldman, Sir John Gielgud, Jane Seymour, Gabriel Byrne, Eric Idle, Don Rickles, Bronson Pinchot and Cary Elwes. Some are used fleetingly, others are unrecognizable and others just aren't that impressive; the point to using such brand-name talent seems a bit mystifying.
The songs here, by veteran tunesmiths David Foster and Carole Bayer Sager, are polished to the point of tedium. There's little sense of playfulness. Example: Ruber, the villain, uncorks a banal paean to evil: "Let's go back to war and violence / I'm so bored with peace and silence."
In another number, Garrett gravely intones, "All by myself I stand alone" (is there another way?). Then, Garrett and Kayley together proclaim, "Love took me by surprise / looking through your eyes." Apparently, Camelot is just one big adult contemporary radio station.
The kids with whom I saw "Quest for Camelot" were entertained but not wowed (too many songs, they complained) and spent much of the ride home playing critics, naming the cinematic precedents for much of what they saw. The 4-year-old said the story was a cross between "Anastasia" and "Hercules," and that Garrett looked like the post-Beast Prince in "Beauty and the Beast." The 8-year-old cited "The Lion King" as the inspiration for "Quest's" exotic musical opening, and referenced Devon and Cornwall practically back to Abbott and Costello. When filmmakers can't even convince children that their wares are fresh, a reassessment of creative goals may be in order.
Still, given Warners' venerable, wildly entertaining history in animation, it would be foolish to discount the new feature division out of hand. Consider "Quest for Camelot" a test run that shakes the bugs out of the system, and hope for the sort of anarchy that Bugs and his brood used to create in the future.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: Very young children might be briefly frightened.
'Quest for Camelot'
Jessalyn Gilsig/Andrea Corr: Voice of Kayley
Cary Elwes/Bryan White: Voice of Garrett
Gary Oldman: Voice of Ruber
Jane Seymour/Celine Dion: Voice of Juliana
A Warner Bros. presentation. Director Frederik Du Chau. Screenplay Kirk DeMicco, William Schifrin, Jacqueline Feather, David Seidler. Producer Dalisa Cooper Cohen. Music Patrick Doyle. Songs David Foster, Carole Bayer Sager. Production designer Steve Pilcher. Editor Standford C. Allen. Running time 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.
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